Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries

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Anglo-Saxon Twilight
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Digging up beliefs

Archaeologists can dig up all sorts of evidence about the past. States of preservation can vary considerably but, overall, much can be gleaned about the material culture. But one realm of evidence never survives – evidence for intangible culture, such as beliefs. Or at least that is the way things used to be. But in recent decades archaeologists investigating the earliest phases of human evolution have begun to speculate about how changes in the way early humans thought affected the evidence available to archaeologists. This is termed 'cognitive archaeology' and has proven to offer fruitful – if invariably contested – insights.

So useful has cognitive archaeology been to paleoarchaeologists that those dealing with more recent periods have said 'We'll have some of that too.' So little surprise that some of the leading names in Anglo-Saxon archaeology have taken just such a cognitive approach, qualified by the recognition that ' we know that even the best archaeology provides no open access to the mind.'. These are the prefatory words of Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple to a book called Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon paganism revisited (Carver et al 2010). It is a collection of papers from three conferences over the preceding five years.

These papers look at a number of archaeological topics – sites of 'temples' and water-based 'shrines', evidence for high-status domestic houses or halls, animals depicted in art, and animal remains left after butchery and cooking. And, inevitably, burial practices. So far, fairly predictable. But their approach is more novel. As the preface states, they assume that 'what people believed, whether pure reason or intellectual mish-mash, was expressed in their material culture' (Carver et al 2010: ix) so can be recognised by archaeologists. However they are careful to emphasis that they are not recording or studying the beliefs directly but only the 'signals of belief' – hence the book's title.

These papers confirm that such signals can be clearly recognised. Furthermore they reveals that beliefs varied from place to place as well as over time. And, this is where things get a little radical compared to preceding interpretations, Carver and his colleagues no longer assume that there was an 'underlying consistency' with local variations. Instead:

Since every community is likely to have its own take on cosmology, there will be many hundreds of communities to study before an underlying system – if there was one – is to emerge.
 
Our premise is therefore that paganism was not a religion with supraregional rules and institutions but a loose term for a variety of local intellectual world views… More controversially, we extend the same courtesy to Christianity. Although insisting on its universality, Christianisation too hides a multiplicity of locally negotiated positions, that probably did not amount to a religion (in the orthodox sense) until the 8th century or later. Neither paganism nor Christianity are treated here as independent agents, out to confront and better each other.
 
(Carver et al 2010: ix)

In place of simplistic notions, these papers challenge the way the word 'paganism' has been used as a broad cultural and chronological label. They draw upon previous studies which sought to understand pre-Christian beliefs though animals in art, mortuary symbolism, unusual grave types, evidence for shrines, and even the archaeology of settlements to reveal what seems to be much more idiomatic 'pick and mix' attitudes to matters of religion.

I am indebted to the contributors to Signals of Belief for kick-starting a number of avenues of thought. I am well aware that while they approach Anglo-Saxon England as archaeologists – albeit 'cognitive archaeologists – my approach the same territory is from the very different paradigm of cultural studies and, more specifically, a search for underlying worldviews. But, while from an academic perspective there is probably only limited overlap, suffice to say that Anglo-Saxon Twilight may not have come about without Signals of Belief.

However the contributors to Signals of Belief are not the only players in this field. David Petts has also looked at religious change in early medieval Europe. He notes that the study of medieval archaeology has hitherto been dominated by attempts to interpret historical sources, in complete contrast to prehistoric archaeology where interpretation is based on competing theoretical approaches. He acknowledges that the study of the medieval era now encompasses both historical and archaeological approaches (Petts 2011: 45; 97–8). Quite where Twilight, with its 'cosmological' approach, fits into that spectrum I will leave as an open question. Strictly, cosmology ought to be part-and-parcel of historical approaches, although as few historians look beyond beliefs at the underlying worldviews, in practice this approach has more in common with the methodologies of cognitive archaeologists.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–2014

 


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